The Desert - A Revelation
In this article I would like to pass on some experiences I had during a trip to Israel and Sinai in early January 1995. It was during a study tour organized by the committee Zicht op Israël (“View of Israel”) and our “Deputation for the Proclamation of the Gospel among Israel.” The theme of the tour was: “Desert and Revelation.”
We knew beforehand that this would be a very interesting and fruitful theme, but the days of preparation and the tour itself even surpassed the expectations of the participants.
The Desert: Mirror of Our Time?
The theme “desert” is in the air we breathe. In recent years quite a few books have been published with that word in the title. To many people it is a key term that helps to describe our present culture.
Does the life of the church in our time not look like the journey of Israel through the desert? Certainties of the past have fallen away. We are discovering that we are drying out from the inside and that we have to search for our wellsprings again.
Did not Israel receive the revelation of God in the desert? Could the “desert” in our times possibly be also the place where God speaks to us anew? And the time after the revelation on Sinai — was that not a time of purification? Could our time become the birthplace of a new time as well, possibly after a process of purification?
These are compelling and attractive thoughts. It is good not to discard them right away. In addition, we are not the first to draw a parallel between our time and the desert time. The author of the letter to the Hebrews had done this as well! Yet exactly this should caution us. The author of the letter to the Hebrews refers to the time in the desert to warn the church of his day: do not stay behind in disobedience, but “enter the rest”. He does not tie a whole lot of meanings to the term “desert,” but he refers to the wanderings of Israel in order to remind his readers that they know a “much greater” sanctuary than the priestly service of the tabernacle, namely: the living High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have to take care not to use the term “desert” as a peg onto which we can hang all kinds of things. What is important is its biblical meaning.
The Desert in the Bible
A first objective of our tour was to look for the biblical roots of the theme “desert”.
The first thing that strikes us is that the desert stands for chaos and an inhospitable environment. In the desert there are no roads as in villages and towns. You are outside of people’s society and you are also beyond the reach of the power of Baal and of the gods of Babylon. Once Israel was allowed to enter the land of Canaan out of the desert, they came into a totally new situation. The manna ceased and they could eat from the fruits of the land. But now they encountered people for whom agriculture was completely interwoven with their (fertility) religion. The people of Israel were powerfully attracted to this. Every Bible reader will know how great the temptation was for Israel to participate in the fertility religions. Still, it is also strange, because the Lord had guided Abraham through the desert from Haran to Canaan. And centuries later, after the exile, he led the people of Israel along a “prepared way” through the desert.
In this way he showed himself to be more powerful than the fertility gods of the peoples. Why, then, does Israel allow itself to be so blinded by the Baals? Is it not because the Baals, while requiring much, will leave you untouched on the inside, whereas the Lord asks you to love him with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength? Then, after all, there is a real parallel with our time, a time in which we as people ascribe success to our own abilities!
Led into the Desert…
Again, the question is whether certain motifs and parts from the Bible have special meaning for today.
We read in Hosea 2 that the Lord will make Israel like “a desert” (verse 3), taking everything away that she said her lovers had given her. (The Lord is the lawful husband of Israel and the Baals are therefore “lovers.”)
That is undeniably a judgment: the Lord takes away from his people what they had received from him, but for which they did not return recognition and gratitude. Israel’s becoming a “desert” means: becoming bereft of everything they need in life. It is completely passive: it comes over Israel, without it being said that Israel will understand the reasons and the final outcome. But this passive event is not the final event. A bit further on in the same chapter the picture changes. The same Israel, which a moment ago was called “desert” herself, is now being led into the desert. The difference is remarkable and significant. Israel is being addressed again — in the heart. And the valley of Achor — the valley of judgment from Joshua 7, where the curse was averted from Israel — again becomes a “door of hope,” that is, when Israel once again learns to listen to the Lord. Therefore: the desert can be a place where God speaks to us in the stillness, and in the emptiness from everything that used to fill up our lives.
The Desert — A Jewish and a Christian View
The question is then which conclusion to draw from this. Is the desert a place that you may seek out, in order to find God?
One purpose of our tour was to form an idea of the meanings that Jews and Christians have attached to the desert over the course of time. There is a marked difference when we look at the answers that men give to the question as to how the desert can be appreciated.
For the Jews the desert is seen as the edge of civilization, as an ever-present threat to life. Therefore — in accordance with the Old and New Testament — there is no question of withdrawing oneself into the stillness of the desert in order to find God. In the times of the New Testament one does find certain Jewish groups that sought refuge in the desert. But that was, on the one hand, because they could not stand it any longer in the — according to them — godless Jerusalem and, on the other hand, because here they planned to wait for the coming of God. The question remains as to whether these people can be seen as the forerunners of Christian monks. But did not Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and possibly also Paul spend some time in the desert, in preparation for their task? Certainly, but the difference between them and the ideal of the Christian monks is that they did not “glorify” the desert, but rather stayed in seclusion as preparation for a new task in life.
When we compare the Jewish tradition on this point with the ancient church, then a clear difference can be observed after a few centuries. While people were not going into the desert at the beginning of the Christian church, towards the end of the third century an “exodus” into the desert was taking place. Small concentrations of hermits were being established all over, as people began to withdraw from the civilized world and opt for a life of abstinence.
Why this change? The Christian appreciation of the desert should probably be explained as arising from the Greek influences that Gentile Christians brought along from their past. Their view of the desert was unquestionably different from the view of the Old Testament, where Israel’s joy was that “[e]very man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree” (Micah 4:4). The Feast of Booths was never meant as a glorification of the time in the desert, but was a set time in the year when one remembered that, at all times and in all respects, we live from the hand of God.
But the New Testament — does it not portray a greater distance from earthly life than we find in the Old Testament? When Paul tells us to possess things as if we were not possessing them, is he not calling us to a certain asceticism? And if Christ is in heaven, is earth and this earthly life not of lesser importance?
No, in the New Testament we do not find the inclination to withdraw from the world. The churches live in cities and not on the edge of society. The Christian life wants to be lived in the midst of this world, with its challenges and temptations. We are called to sanctify the earthly relationships in which God has placed us. We therefore do not have to seek out the desert.
But that does not take away the fact that we do well to keep the biblical meaning of the desert in view. It can direct our gaze towards the Lord, who in the barrenness and lifelessness of our time also wants to show his power and majesty to those who expect life from him.